Musings on Gandhi, Obama and Leadership

Published on April 8th, 2011

The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed a new book, “Great Soul,” about Mahatma Gandhi that the reviewer, Andrew Roberts, describes as “generally admiring.” How much the book chips away at some of the Indian icon’s saintliness or how much it’s the reviewer, it’s hard to say (I’ve not read the book to judge for myself, and The New York Times review has another take on this very complex man that’s more in line with our Ben Kingsley-“Gandhi”-the-movie view). But, apparently there is quite a bit of controversy surrounding the publication of this biography – at least in India where it’s been banned in one state according to The New York Times, and more bans may follow. Particular brewing controversies aside on “Great Soul,” as I often look at stories through the lens of population matters, two things struck me reading the WSJ review. During Gandhi’s time, the population of India was in the 300 million range. New census numbers from India show the population now is at about 1.2 billion (17 percent of the world’s population). There still are indications that India may overtake China as the most populous country – not a claim that would merit much applause, I’d suspect. The second item from the WSJ review that caught my attention was the mention that Gandhi opposed any birth control except abstinence. Apparently neither Gandhi’s personal asceticism nor his support of abstinence-only particularly resonated with the populace when judged by a quadrupling of population in a relatively short time period. In a country where female infanticide continues, millions are homeless and millions lack basic sanitation, it’s hard to imagine that a focus – starting 60 years ago – on encouraging replacement-level population wouldn’t have been a great move for the country. This is not to denigrate what successes India has had on population issues, but they do seem diminished in the face of the startling statistic that India has added 181 million people in just the last decade. While we at CAPS work on issues related to rapid population growth in California and the United States, we understand that reduced population growth in other countries will help ease the pressure to immigrate for economic and other reasons and can lead to greater sustainability worldwide, so we support the work of organizations that work globally in this area. Looking at what’s happening in other countries can also provide insight into our own country. It’s not surprising I tuned into India’s pre-partition population of 300 million. We’re now playing in that neighborhood at 311 million and growing. Could the U.S. follow a similar growth path as India and reach a population of 1.2 billion? It seems in the realm of possibility – maybe it’s improbable, but it is possible. We should look to India as a cautionary tale, and we should demand that population growth be a greater part of the discussion by mainstream media, academics, business and government. Real leadership on this is overdue. Without the population component being an integral part of the discussion, we can’t have a fact-based approach to most policy planning. For instance, last week President Obama talked about an energy policy and called for a one-third reduction in U.S. oil imports by 2025, but nowhere was there any mention of how our population growth impacts our energy consumption. Of course we know that it does. As well, is that a one-third reduction based on current U.S. population or on projected population? If it includes population projections, how accurate are our projections when we consistently have displayed limited effectiveness in even knowing the number of people coming to the country both legally and illegally. In the case of the latter, estimates have the number of people living in the country illegally ranging from 10 to 30 million. The population factor needs to be part of any policy discussion and articulated to the public, so that they begin to have a greater awareness of the impacts of growth. While 1.2 billion seems far away from 311 million, for India it was only a lifetime.

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